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Published in the 16-31 Dec 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition


The struggle for a new nikahnama

By Kaleem Kawaja

For over a decade now many enlightened Muslims from various walks of life have expressed convincing opinions advocating reform in the current badly flawed "triple divorce" system. Not only this practice is very unfair to women, it is also contradictory to the guidance in the basic Islamic sources, which require that the husband comply with certain conditions, and allow a period of about 3 months to lapse before making the final pronouncement to divorce his wife. In many Muslim countries the personal laws have been revised over the decades to remove the unjust abuse of the Islamic facility of divorce by errant husbands. Unfortunately India is one of the very few countries where this unjust system still prevails.

During the lifetime of late Maulana Abul Hasan Nadvi (Ali Mian), the then head of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), many distinguished Muslims had begun the effort to change this awful system. It is said that Ali Mian was in favour of this change but wanted it done by applying the due process of Islamic jurisprudence. After he passed away the mantle for this reform fell on the shoulders of Maulana Mujahidul Islam Qasmi, the new head of AIMPLB, who made a sincere effort in this direction. Unfortunately his efforts were stymied and slowed down by longwinded filibuster and counter-productive lengthy arguments resulting from in-fighting in AIMPLB and the clergy. And then he too passed away.

It was this extraordinary foot-dragging and delay in making a simple reform, within the permissible Islamic system, as many years went by, that encouraged the adversaries of Muslims to raise a hue and cry throughout the nation to institute Uniform Personal Laws. And soon it became a battle-cry of Hinduttavadwadis to malign the entire 130 million Muslim community.

That brings us to the last couple of years when the reconstituted AIMPLB, with a few more women members, took serious cognizance of this matter and agreed to institutionalize the new model Nikahnama for Muslims, that will reform the current, very unjust "triple divorce" system. Let us hope that finally there is light at the end of the long and dark tunnel. In this background it made me sad to read MH Lakdawala's report on this issue in Milli Gazette, and his rebuttal of Uzma Naheed's column in the 16th November MG.

I found Uzma Naheed's column on the long and tortuous history of the development of the model Nikahnama enlightening. I fully empathize with her anguish and frustration in this regard. As a member of AIMPLB she and her associates have demonstrated much patience and desire to work with all members of the Board and Ulema, and respect their views. It is sad that the initiative of such enlightened and good Muslim women, who want to work within the Islamic system, is termed "ego problem of Muslim activists" by a few Muslim men. It is very distressing to hear some prominent Muslim clerics label the long dedicated "new Nikhanama" efforts as "wasting our time on symbolic solutions like Nikahnama". Why is it that these gentlemen who know well that the current triple divorce system does not follow true Islamic guidance, are opposing the reform of a system that is very oppressive towards Muslim women in the country?

Do these gentlemen realize the magnitude of harm that the current triple divorce custom has caused to a large number of good Muslim women and the entire community? Do they understand the long and uphill battle waged by the dedicated Muslim women, who are not rebels or publicity oriented, to bring about this pressing reform for their sisters, by working within the system? Do they understand that many Hindu women activists in this campaign who are helping Muslim women activists, put high emphasis on working with the Muslim clergy within the Islamic tradition? And why is it that despite the abundance of highly educated and good, practicing Muslim women, only a handful have been made members of AIMPLB and its Working Committee? I hope more Muslim men will act to resolve these problems. 

Kaleem Kawaja is president of the Association of Indian Muslims of America, Washington DC and may be contacted at

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